Portrait of the Early Adolescent
Student building for this level is based on maintaining the discipline
gains, recognizing and acknowledging student identification with valued
peer groups and self ambivalence by practicing methods for valuing self
and recognizing idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses.
Capitalize on your strengths
Do your best
There are three basic elements in the internalization of moral
1) the spirit of authority and discipline
2) attachment to social groups
3) autonomy or self-determination
Role of the youth
The emerging adolescent is in a similar situation to the young child in
many ways. This time the faltering steps are not those of locomotion,
but of social acceptance and self questioning. The toddling of these young
people in our classrooms is groping and faltering in emotional, social
and physical spheres just as it was for the 2-year-old, but the size of
the child seems to blind us to the vulnerability and uncertainty of the
adolescent. Like the emerging toddler, in some there is rashness and lack
of caution. There may be headlong rushing with little awareness of life-threatening
danger or destructive consequences. This emotional child and physical
adult often finds the turmoil of the emerging self just as distressing,
confusing and challenging as the adults - one moment exhibiting brash
certitude and an insistence on being taken seriously, followed by feeling
mentally challenged, emotionally confused, socially distressed and physically
and morally at a loss to choose or desire self control.
Many adolescents have difficulty being directed by adults.
They seldom feel that they can share their conflicts with parents, or
at least choose not do so. Many times their sense of tragedy, grieving
and complaining appears to be dramatic nonsense about the trivial to adults.
Adults tend to respond with an unsympathetic clipped comment. We know
that adolescence was/is miserable, so just get on with it! I hear parents
tell youngsters,. . . “Come on, Jimmy, Cowboy up!” . . . “Well, that’s
life.” . . . “Take a couple of aspirins and get back on that ditch!”
During this time the magnetic pulls of autonomy and heteronomy
are very strong, almost overpowering at times. It is as if the student
is in the eye of the storm, pulled first toward the conformity to group
and striving for peer acceptance, then dashed toward the overpowering
need to demonstrate self will, usually directed toward the constraints
which come from the parents. Part of the developmental push for autonomy
is deepened by the hormonal changes, part by self doubt, part by the lack
of real ability to exercise authority over others, which most young people
experience in life. Though we tend to minimize how difficult it was for
us or have forgotten the sense of tragedy, it is there for youngsters.
Throw temper tantrums
uUe lots of space
Insist on own way, on choosing
Self in context
Quiet and retiring
Often take position as teacher's pet
May be decisive but not demanding
Accept and give compliments
Hold self "small" and contained
Sees others’ views
Adolescence might call to mind life’s greatest roller coaster.
Everything goes by at breakneck speed, the slow and inching climb to a
precipice, the dizzying dash to a new low. Some of us take the ride laughing
and screaming, some let go to intensify the out-of-control sensation,
and some look grim and determined. When the ride is over, some stagger
off moaning, while others grab someone and dash back to go again. Those
who found it overwhelming or nauseating find little sympathy. We can choose
not to ride a coaster again, but the teen, in the midst of the ride of
a lifetime, has to make the ride.
The teacher / student relationship is often the most important
source of grounding and maturity, a place for young adolescents to turn
for help and for answers. There is a very real need all the way through
life to have a sense of mastery, control, expertise
in some area, this is an ideal time to recognize the power of utilizing
the teaching role as model and mentor to students. The anchor of “coach”,
the band director, the English teacher, provides both comfort and the
didactic realization of how one might carve out a future based on a tangible
way of walking, talking, relating. The teacher model silhouettes a way
of “doing” life using a special gift or area of expertise. This is something
beyond the offering of the teaching role up to this point. It is vital
for the student to feel the power and depth of the instructor’s excitement
about learning and knowledge of a specific content areas as a part of
having the opportunity to build relationship with this mentor. The sense
of “awe” at the mathematical genius of the instructor intertwines with
the adult hand reaching out to “share” the excitement of completing the
chemistry experiment and discover the results together.
There is great power in the teacher and students working
together to assemble the school paper. There is internal validation and
reveling in playing with the chamber orchestra which is comprised of teacher
and student musicians. There is a sense of well-being in working as a
peer counselor, modeling dialogue and skills shared by the school counselor.
The role of the teacher and student might best be summed up in this humorous
One day a classroom teacher, and the novice student teacher took
a group of youngsters out on the lake to provide an outing which
would allow students to conduct research in an aquatic environment.
Midmorning the group was out of beverages. The student teacher said,
“I’ll run into shore and get more drinks out of the car.”
The driver offered to start the boat and take her in, but the student
teacher jumped over the side and walked across the surface of the
lake, returning to the boat with the drinks. The students were aghast.
How could anyone have walked on the water? It certainly seemed miraculous.
Not long after, the student teacher decided that the students needed
a couple of books to resolve some the questions which were arising.
One of the students hastily assured the others that he would not
need to be taken to shore and jumped out of the water. Plop! He
was totally submerged.
Not willing to be outdone by the student teacher, he scrambled back
into the boat and gingerly pushed himself over the edge. He disappeared
into the lake again. The student teacher shook her head, and took
off across the water, skimming along the top of the waves. As the
student drew himself back into the boat the teacher leaned over
and quietly said,
”Why don’t you ask the student teacher to show you the rocks?”
P Physical development - changes
in height, body structure, appearance and acquisition of secondary sexual
characteristics make this a dynamic time of change and adjustment. Many
youngsters suffer real and psychic pain because of the change in appearance
and the rapid body changes that affect growth plates, long bones and the
musculature. Students are often torn between the need for rest to support
the growth of the body and the need for stimulation, that makes going
to sleep unappealing.
E Emotional development - identity
crisis and confusion across all dimensions of the construct of self are
typically a part of this time frame. This is one of the most dynamic periods
of growth, and makes it difficult for many youth to maintain equilibrium
and self control.
P Philosophical development - this
is an extremely sensitive time in the development of moral reasoning,
with many students becoming affixed to an egocentric journey through life,
along with a tendency to identify personal loyalty to a subculture or
gang rather than mainstream community. This is also the point when some
youngsters settle on “things” rather than people for achieving personal
S Social development - peers and
gangs become a referent source, and adult perspective loses much of its
power, although a great teaching model may continue to provide esteem
I Intellectual development - the
prefrontal lobes come fully on line during this period, but at varying
times for individual students, so it is difficult to determine when abstract
thinking and formal operations are intact.
The range of growth is most extreme during this period of time. Not only
is there great variation, but the complexity of changes makes it very
noticeable to students. Those girls who develop too early, and those boys
and girls who are late in arriving at pubescence or achieving adult dimensions
are at a distinct disadvantage. It may be so important to them that other
thought processes are diminished. Obsessing about the body, pimples, sexual
appearance, attractiveness to others and self are so common that addressing
their powerfulness through curriculum and study is preferable to attempting
to ignore and work around them.
Students who gain understanding of the physical nature
of their bodies are less likely to be anxious and are more likely to accept
the developmental differences as positive. Teaching students about the
bones and integument makes it less likely that they will ruminate about
questions that feel too private to share. A middle school teacher shared
Last year I was explaining the reproductive cycle to the eighth grade
biology class. After class one of the girls came up and told me in hushed
tones that she was greatly relieved. A boy had given her a “French” kiss
. . . and she had been frightened that she had become pregnant.
She felt too ashamed to tell anyone about the experience. She had been
throwing up with the anxiety of the situation, not knowing where to turn.
Her relief was very real upon learning the true nature of human sexuality
I was certainly shocked by the revelation. My gosh, the girl has a straight
“A” grade average. How could she have gotten such an idea?
It is important to remember that since the adolescent body is growing
so rapidly, the student is more likely to damage joints and growth plates.
Self competitive sports are less likely to result in serious permanent
damage. In this time frame, students may have more reticence about dressing
out, showering, seeming puny or underdeveloped. Body odor upsets many
students as do menstrual accidents and newly acquired hips, thighs, breasts,
or lack of body hair and sexual signatures. The school programs can reflect
recognition of this sensitively and astutely. Numerous alternatives to
competitive teams and forced showering and dressing in peer view can be
developed. Such attention to development will assist students to ease
through this time.
Erikson (1968) described the complexity of concerns facing the adolescent.
The diffusion of tasks and issues facing the emotional development provides
definition for the array of student actions, lack of careful attention
to academics, uncharacteristic responses and mercurial mood swings. As
we become more fully cognizant of the burden these students carry, it
helps us to revise the scope and sequence of the educational milieu to
assist in defining and addressing student issues and concerns. It is incumbent
upon the teacher to be fully present for the emerging adolescent in the
most meaningful terms.
In addition, as we become more clear about the composition of the journey
of most adolescents, we must remember that the students are not fully
able to recognize or define their dilemmas. Many do not understand their
feelings of frustration or uncertainty. Few are able to be rational about
feelings of polarization. It will be a retrospective appreciation which
will occur to students upon successful completion. After students emerge
from the intensity, once time has given distance and there is more maturity,
then the student can be insightful, reflective, clear about choices and
decisions. Much like the angry person who bursts out with “I am not upset!
Why are you hassling me?” the students weigh each moment, feeling fully
engaged and lacking personal perspective about the depth of joy or morass.
Just as the emotional development looks like a step backwards, the moral
reasoning may seem tangential. The acting out behaviors, challenging established
rules and parental dictates, lack of internal reflection and verbalized
sense of being victimized or put upon and misunderstood signals the need
and readiness for better coping behaviors and help in moving beyond stereotypical
responses as a means of gaining acceptance. Gossiping, visiting judgment
on others and intolerance of others’ personal weaknesses are indicators
of the student immersion in this stage. Energetic excess followed by depression,
despondency, lack of self discipline, eating problems, sexual acting out,
substance abuse and violence are also frequent markers for this age. The
talk of hypocrisy exemplifies lack of understanding and a rational perspective
of their emotional development and their ability to see themselves rationally.
Listening to peer conversations provides an excellent sampling of the
moral reasoning and life perspective. They party, their parents are alcoholics;
they are searching for closeness and intimacy, their best friend from
last month is being stupid and letting others take advantage; they are
taking what’s due them, the student with the missing books is a jerk to
have given out a locker combination. Those intermediate age gains -- seeing
the view of others, saving rain forests, -- is only temporarily lost.
Once the student has emerged from this retooling period, there is greater
energy, depth of understanding and maturity to follow causes and beliefs,
to right wrongs and provide support to the poor in spirit.
During this time, adults who model and provide compassion are critical.
It speeds the process and provides that set of footprints which makes
the dance of adulthood easier to attempt
The group, gang, or clique is the common referent for the early adolescent.
Since parental pressure and perspective is eschewed, the value and importance
of teacher as model is intensified. The task of sorting out self is simplified
when a teacher works with students to clarify options, expand perspective,
assist in recognizing and choosing when to conform rather than being swayed
by peer pressure. Warmth, attentiveness and consistency provide the best
environment to assist students to return to mutual perspective taking
and being able to more realistically assess themselves. Depriving students
of social interaction is inappropriate and likely to lengthen the process
of working through peer pressure. It is important during this time to
maintain our own maturity of perspective. Defaming peers, proclaiming
a lack of trust or using sarcasm to whittle the student into conformity
are not useful tools. From experience, there may be natural reactions
to the behavior patterns of this age student, but like yelling at the
class to quiet down, they are only momentarily useful and tend to set
anger and pay-back feelings in motion.
This developmental area is as complex as the others. The ability to think
abstractly and to utilize a more sophisticated framework including conservation
of time and matter is suggested by Piaget (1952). One professor at the
university suggests that Piaget’s sample of his own three children may
have been skewed. It appears that formal operations is more likely to
emerge toward the end of adolescence for most of his students.
Erikson (1968) on the other hand, suggests that this is an area that
may begin emerging, but that it may be a protracted journey before the
student moves to resolution and acceptance of the more mature perspectives.
A more useful way of providing a successful academic environment may mirror
Lazear (1992) and Gardner’s (1991) identification of seven distinctive
forms of intelligence.
Youngsters who have a sophisticated logical intelligence are ready to
proceed in mathematical discovery and experimentation. Others in the class,
just as bright, but with a different intellectual focus may need to renegotiate
fractions, number concepts, memorize the times tables. It will be destructive
to both students if the teacher proceeds to review concepts and then rapidly
moves on to pre-algebraic material. This is the ideal academic place to
move to a more thematic and individualized approach to education. The
students will respond better, the time is better spent, the talents and
emerging gifts more truly honored, and the students will feel validated
and valued. Since motivation for school work is competing with body image,
peer approval, lack of self confidence, indifference, emotional crises,
every gain is important. Placing the student in a defining and evaluating
role for self provides a significant educational edge.